Back in the pre-hispanic days, even before the hugely important and greatly influential Triple Alliance that we know today as the famous Aztec Empire, the Nahuatl/Nawatl language was spoken widely all across the Mexican Valley and beyond it. Not only the Nahua people used it, far from it. Plenty of other nations with their own native languages in use spoke Nahuatl either fluently or otherwise, for trading purposes or diplomatic reasons.
As far back as the 13th and 14th centuries, when the famous Tenochtitlan, the magnificent capital of the Mexica/Aztecs, the one that had left such a lasting impression on the invading conquistadors in 1519, was nothing but a mediocre island-city as yet, the Nahuatl language was already spread beyond the Mexican Valley. The Tepanecs, a regional power that preceded the Mexica/Aztec dominated Triple Alliance, were Nahua people as well, and their trading net reached far and wide, further than their warring forces did (not the case with the later day Triple Alliance). There is a debate among linguists and archeologists as to the presence, or maybe even dominance of Nahuatl in the earlier centuries as well, all the way back to the times of Teotihuacan in the beginning of the first millennium.
Even after the Spanish conquest, Nahuatl kept reaching wider and wider areas. The Spaniards seemed to accept it as the main native language of Mexico, the only one they seemed to respect enough to translate holy books into it, make effort to record it in Latin letters (which sadly replaced its original glyph-writing system) and produce several grammar books, priceless as always in those times.
Thus, Classical Nahuatl became the uncontested literary language throughout all Spanish-held territories of Central America. Today we can run into Mayan towns as far away from the Central Mexico as the ones dotting Guatemala and Yucatan that are catching one’s eye with their out-of-place Nahuatl names. In fact, the name Guatemala itself is not a local Mayan (K’iche K’iche) alias at all, but a purely Nahuatl word: Cuahtemallan/Place of Many Trees (cuahui(tl)-tree, tema-to fill, tlan or just lan-a place) mispronounced by the Spanish into Guatemala.
Long after the fall of Tenochtitlan and through the first two centuries of relentlessly brutal colonization, Nahuatl was still considered the main language of the “New Spain.” In fact, in 1570, the Spanish king Philip II decreed that Nahuatl should be “…the official language of the New Spain and all its colonies…”, a degree that held for many decades and was cancelled only at the end of the 17th century, when another decree of yet another Spanish ruler banished the use of any language but Spanish in all colonies. Even so, until the mid-18th century Classical Nahuatl remained the literary language of the whole area despite it all.
Today, over a million and a half people speak it as their first language, and many more use it to this or that degree (with thousands of others all over Mexico and USA trying to relearn it and so return to their possible roots and lost identities).
For itself, Nahuatl is a truly beautiful language, delightfully soft-sounding and flowing, wonderfully logical and easy to understand once its mechanics are made clear. Built mostly on the root-word system, it is easy to decipher, to separate roots from its suffixes and prefixes, to compose longer words made from quite a few smaller ones. In fact, Nahuatl is “notoriously” known among other polysynthetic languages to form very long, sometimes sentence-long words, adding root-words to each other while getting rid of their suffixes and prefixes. Sometimes a single word can constitute a whole sentence. To the best of my knowledge, the most famous long word of this sort is coming from the dialect of Nahuatl spoken in Tetelcingo (a Nahua town in the state of Morelos, MX), which makes a whole 18 syllable word nehualmoyecastemojmolunijtzinutinemisquioni that roughly translates as “you honorable people might have come along banging your noses so as to make them bleed, but in fact you didn’t” (not that for myself I managed to reconstruct this word and try to understand how it was put together).
Such an enormous word is an exception, of course. But words of five or more syllables composed from simpler ones are very common, words like ni-mitz-tlazotla which means “I love you”, with “ni” standing for “I” (always a prefix for I when a verb is involved), “mitz” standing for “you”, and the word “tlazotla” means to love/appreciate/precious. Or, in another common example of a polite greeting, one says nipaqui nimitzixmati – I’m happy to meet you, where ni-mitz-ixmati again starts with “ni” for “I”, “mitz” for “you” and “mati” being a root word for to know/to get to know/to learn.
So, this way, if you know enough root-words and most commonly used suffixes that are to be dropped when the words are combined (not that many of them, four main suffixes for the nouns “tl, tli, li and in”) you can trust yourself to be able to understand what is being said or written, at least when the writer or speaker uses nouns alone (not that the tenses of verbs are terribly difficult to understand either). Unless some of the nouns were used in a plural form, which can be tricky and challenging in Nahuatl compared to the simplicity of the English language in this matter – four different ways to make a noun plural, none resembles one another and each applies accordingly to the root of the word and its sort.
Some linguists argue that as far as the words’ order goes, Nahuatl tends to be a verb-initial language but with enough freedom to play with other variations. Others say that no special rules compel the speaker to this or that verb-subject-object order at all.
In the next article, we will explore Nahuatl words that had made their way into other languages, English among them, and that most of us use without even knowing that we speak Nahuatl, even if just a little.